18 November 2018
I was just reading Ray Kurzweil’s book, How to Create a Mind. He was talking about how the two hemispheres of our brain are actually two brains, with their own perceptions of the world. He said, to some extent, they independently govern the two sides of our bodies, as well as certain specialized tasks like language and spatial orientation. It brings up the question for me, is there one mind, even if there are two brains, or perhaps many brains inside of us? I think the fundamental idea of spiritual practices, mindfulness practices, is that there is one mind which can be strengthened, like a muscle, with practice. We can cultivate this one mind with mindfulness practices which deepen to concentration and generate insight. The insight can then get stored in the brain as habit patterns. But what I want to keep coming back to is this idea, and this experience, of one mind. When mindfulness deepens into concentration we act as one concentrated being, with 100% of ourselves applied to whatever we are doing and experiencing in the present moment, whether it’s remembering a past event, threading a needle, writing a sentence, breathing or smiling.
One mind is the ultimate accomplishment. It means it is clear to us that we are not a mess, that we are not scattered about, half lost, and largely forgotten. All the ways we seem to be distracted and divided can suddenly vanish as we become one concentrated mind. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about leaking. We are like a vessel that is leaking, our energy dissipating from the container which is our mind. The goal of practice is to cease leaking and to allow our energy to be one energy, one whole being, one unified experience. I think of Paul McCartney singing, “I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wandering, where it will go.”
The great goal of spiritual practice is radical concentration and radical openness. It’s not hard to do but it takes giving oneself to the task of being fully present. I activate this capacity for concentration, for being here now, for beaming into the present moment, and by focusing inwards I end up projecting outwards a deep attention that takes in the world in a deep and rich way. This is a great and surprising result of the practice of giving attention to myself. By turning my attention to myself, to the center of my experience, I end up being acutely aware of the world. It feels as if the vail between myself and the world is lifted and we are intimately one. I feel suddenly transparent. There is no barrier between me and the world, between anything and anything else, and between anything and the whole. I think to evoke and maintain this state of being is what spiritual practice, also called mindfulness, is all about.
It is relatively easy for me to evoke this mode of consciousness while sitting in meditation or sitting here writing and thinking about nothing else. And I know that to do this, however I can, and to sustain this mode of experience as long as possible, reshapes my brain so that this mode of being becomes a new habit. Modern neuroscience has discovered this and has a phrase for it, “neurons that fire together wire together.” Our brains actually form new connections which make permanent patterns out of our mental activities and these patterns become new habits. A new normal is created. I know from my experience that the quality of my whole day is improved by my morning meditation. I also know that it is very easy to fall back into stressful patterns during the activities I am engaged in during the day. This brings up the question, how do we maintain this mode of living during all of our activities?
One way is to keep reminding ourselves to breathe mindfully during all activities. Even in the midst of a conversation we can remember to breathe mindfully, and it changes everything. No one but ourselves would notice but suddenly we are not tense about the conversation or when it will end and we can bet back to what we have been interrupted in the middle of. Suddenly we are savoring the present moment and the conversation we are engaged with. We relax and settle into the moment and the interesting activity of conversation.
Another way is reminding ourselves to do whatever we are doing for the sake of doing it, not trying to get it done as fast as possible but with our whole selves committed to making the most of it. At Deer Park Monastery, where I have spent a lot of time over the last decade, we are invited to participate in working meditation. We are reminded that working, or any activity, is a meditation, if we attend to it with deep attention and a relaxed, engaged mode of being.
The goal and the practice are one and the same. The practice is to live our lives mindfully, every moment of every day, to thereby have the richest possible experience and evoke our best self.
Welcome to my blog. I am a lifelong spiritual seeker and practitioner. I offer mindfulness training both online and in person. I am ordained in the Zen Buddhist lineage of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and have conducted classes in San Diego for over 20 years. When not teaching or meditating I work as a socially responsible investment
advisor, play music, and enjoy traveling with my wife and friends.